Colorado Springs Entrepreneurs Trying to Restart Local Tech Industry
Something is happening down in Colorado Springs, a city of 440,000 that sprawls between Pikes Peak on the west and Air Force bases on the east. Entrepreneurs are trying to create an environment that will help startups grow, which could add a new element to the city’s economy and might even revive a once-flourishing tech industry.
At the moment it’s all happening at the grassroots, but judging by the proliferation of events over the past two years—like Startup Weekends, technology meetups, and the growth of the Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups program for entrepreneurs—it is happening. The latest evidence is the just-completed Colorado Springs Startup Week. Organizers estimate more than 1,000 people attended 30 events held during the inaugural edition.
In comparison to the established tech ecosystems in Boulder and Denver, Colorado Springs doesn’t get much exposure. But not too long ago, it was a technology hub that rivaled its neighbors in size. In the 1990s major tech firms like Intel, HP, and WorldCom had large outfits in the city, but they began dwindling after the 2000-01 recession and they never really recovered.
Colorado Springs also doesn’t have the number of venture capital-backed startups its Front Range peers have, and there aren’t established companies like Boulder’s Rally Software or Denver’s Ping Identity.
But what Colorado Springs does have is a growing number of people with diverse backgrounds and of different ages who are considering making the leap into the entrepreneurial life. They show up at events like Startup Weekends or the monthly New Tech Meetups that have started in the past few years. So there’s plenty of enthusiasm, interest, and grassroots support, said Michelle Parvinrouh, one of Startup Week’s organizers.
“It’s very raw here, and that’s a beautiful thing about it,” she said.
Ian Lee, another organizer, believes there are a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs who already have solid careers at established tech firms in sectors like aerospace and defense. Both are major industries in Colorado Springs, which is home to several large Army and Air Force bases.
Lee thinks many locals are at a point in their careers where they have the knowledge and confidence to make going into business for themselves a possibility. They seem eager to connect with people like them, see what companies have started up around Colorado Springs, and learn the basics of forming and running a startup.
That’s why many of the startup week’s events had an educational focus on topics like raising angel capital and how venture capital works, Parvinrouh said. Those were some of the best-attended gatherings.
Startup Week organizers also wanted to highlight the different types of startups that have launched, no matter what industry they’re in, and to concentrate on areas of strength.
A major one is the sports and outdoors industry. Colorado Springs is the home of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and major governing bodies like USA Basketball and USA Volleyball have their headquarters in the city.
That network of connections helped draw FuseSport to Colorado Springs, said Chris Clark, its founder and CEO. The startup makes software that sports leagues can use to create and manage schedules and events, track members, and post results.
FuseSport was founded in 1997 in Sydney, Australia, and it could have moved anywhere when it decided to relocate to the U.S. last year as part of its expansion strategy. Clark’s ambition is to create a tool the international sports industry can’t do without, so the company needed to be in a place where the industry was strong and it could meet customers and develop its product.
The company is up against competitors like Active Network and Eventbrite, so it needed to get the relocation decision right so it could get to work. At the time, Clark said he didn’t really know many people in the U.S., let alone Colorado Springs. But when FuseSport opened its new office a few weeks ago, it was welcomed with open arms by the business community and even got a visit from the mayor. That enthusiasm was something Clark wouldn’t have seen back home, he said.
More importantly, FuseSport has found local angel investors and an investment fund that put nearly $1 million into the company. That’s helped the company grow from four to more than a dozen employees since moving to the Springs, and there are plans to employ up to 25 by year’s end, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
FuseSport hosted one of the final events of the week, a panel on helping sports and outdoors companies connect with each other and develop into a growing cluster. City government and economic development types have made building on that a cornerstone of their long-term plans, though the crowd and speakers at the Startup Week panel were just entrepreneurs and their supporters.
Alongside Clark were the founders of Borealis Bikes and Gearmunk. Borealis makes “fat bikes”—mountain bikes with extra-wide tires that can ride on snow and sand—and in its first year has grown to 14 employees and a few million dollars in sales. Gearmunk is developing an online community where users can rate and review athletic and outdoor gear.
The talk drew more than two dozen people despite starting at 5 p.m. on a Friday.
It’s that kind of attention entrepreneurs and their supporters need to sustain and build upon, Lee said. This year’s event was a learning experience for organizers, and they rushed to put it together in a matter of weeks. They intend to have a bigger event next year and want to show the inaugural event led to results—even if they’re still intangibles like exposure and community building. Of course, more employees and more revenue for startups like FuseSport would help make the case.
“We still need to prove our merit,” Lee said about the Startup Week, but his comment also rang true about the ecosystem as a whole.
Already there’s a lot more awareness of startups and support for entrepreneurs, and the culture around them seems to be changing in a healthy way, Lee said. More people are willing to volunteer as mentors and advisers, and fewer people are only willing to help for a price, he said.
Those attitude shifts and the attention are building the confidence of entrepreneurs and connectors like Lee.
“The community is recognizing we’re here to stay,” he said.